Triad builds framework that suits creative class

TRIAD NEXT

By Justin Catanoso

GREENSBORO, N.C. — Most recent grads and young professionals here readily agree. Winston-Salem is not Charlotte. Greensboro is not Raleigh. If given a choice in where to start or advance their careers, especially if those careers fall under the broad umbrella of the “creative economy,” it’s a pretty easy call.

But this prized demographic might want to take a closer look before heading elsewhere. The varied elements of attraction, long in the making, are piling up and starting to coalesce.

Take downtown apartments and ballparks, coffee shops, microbreweries, art hops, food trucks, live theater and bike paths. Add in idea slams, accelerator labs, collaborative office space, entrepreneurial meetups and business incubators. That’s when the perception shifts. That’s when you hear something like this:

“I see no reason why I can’t build my company here,” says Chris Padgett, 26, founder of Fusion 3 Design, a 6-month-old 3D-printer manufacturer in east Greensboro. “It’s places like this that make me optimistic.”

That place is The Forge on Lewis Street on the south end of downtown Greensboro. The Forge is a makerspace, a community workshop that represents another creative economy concept sweeping the country, and the Triad. Makerspaces are coming in Winston-Salem and Burlington.

You have an idea? You need tools or some wood or metalworking machinery? You have some guidance to seek or share? Head to The Forge where $45 a month gets you 24-hour access to more high and low-tech equipment than you could likely house or afford while being surrounded by like-minded tinkerers, inventors and dreamers.

Andy Zimmerman, 57, the former canoe and kayak maker now in real estate development, owns the 4,500-square-foot makerspace. Not insignificantly, he owns the space next door, where a 99-seat microbrewery – Gibb’s Hundred Brewing Co. – will open soon. He explains, both practically and perceptually, what this stretch of Lewis Street is all about, and what amenities like makerspaces mean to the Triad.

“It’s the people who come here. The ideas that hatch. The companies that are born. The way it contributes to downtown being more cool, more interesting.”

Margaret Collins, executive director of the Center for Creative Economy in Winston-Salem, takes it a step further: “This is the sediment that has to be laid. We are putting down the creative infrastructure we need to be attractive to young professionals.”

Let’s keep things in perspective. The creative economy accounts for maybe 5 percent of the Triad’s 751,000-person workforce. Most people here do other things. But those creative jobs and their output in design, technology, communications and the arts help establish and define the soul of a community. They make it cool, fun, interesting – liveable. You know, like Raleigh and Charlotte.

“Too often, we’re off the radar screen,” says Bryan Toney, the associate vice chancellor for economic development at UNCG. “But I think a lot of things are falling into place that will make this a better location to attract young talent.”

Take Padgett, for example. The engineering grad from N.C. State (2001) headed to New York to work for Motorola Solutions in computing and wireless networks. The job was ok, but not as much fun as his hobby in designing and building 3D printers. He convinced his parents to back his idea of a startup business and headed home to Greensboro, at least temporarily, to save on expenses.

“I expected to be alone in the wilderness,” he says. Instead, he found mentors at the Nussbaum Center for Entrepreneurship, guidance from the Greensboro Partnership, and inspiration and potential co-workers at The Forge, where he’s donated the use of a 3D printer.

Padgett has five employees and sales to date of 23 printers. He expects his workforce to double, at least, in the coming year and sales to top $1 million. He’s staying in Greensboro.

The ripples expand. Zimmerman met Padgett at The Forge. He told the young engineer about a product idea of his for the outdoors industry, where he remains well connected. Within a few weeks, Zimmerman had a 3D-printed prototype. Now, a major outdoors player is buying the (as yet secret) idea and Zimmerman is seeking a patent.

“Happy collisions happen here,” he says.

On a recent Tuesday night at The Forge, the place is crowded with hipsters and graybeards, engineers and hobbyists. The frame of a small racecar is welded in place. A banjo springs from a workbench. The 3D printer, attached to a laptop, spins an intricate machine part like a spider on a web.

Joey Adams, 33, a programmer for a Greensboro tech company, is co-founder of the Forge. With tousled hair and jeans, he exudes youthful energy and an inventor’s spirit. Great things are going to happen, he promises. The Triangle would love him. But he loves it here.

“We created this place because we wanted a place like this to exist in Grensboro,” Adams says. “We are trying to fit what the community needs and building the city we want.”

Former executive editor Justin Catanoso is director of journalism at Wake Forest University. His column appears montly.